The Fairest of Them All or the Worst?
March is Women’s month. A time where we remember how far women have come and the challenges they face throughout history. Thus, we are going to do just that in one of the nerdiest ways possible: talk about Disney films. The Walt Disney Company has been around for 94 years and most kids have grown up on their franchise. For years, young women have obsessed over the lady-filled merchandise like the princess movie line or fairy line. However, there is a lot of discussion about princesses and feminism already. For a change, we are going talk about Disney witches.
Witches have been a prominent symbol of feminism and Disney has had a slew of them. I’m going to look at what they represent and how they have changed. Hopefully, at the end of it all, we’ll be able to see why we have to continue to watch them.
For this short analysis, I will focus mostly on the original movies (not sequels or spin-offs). This is not the law or a full thesis. This is my opinion. Spoilers ahead for old and new films alike.
The Wickedness of Witches
An old woman is lost in a forest. She begs a passing knight to help her. The knight stops and sees to the woman. The old woman is a witch and will reward the knight for his kindness. There are several stories like this; sometimes the main character is punished for passing the witch by. Either way, the moral of the story is to be selfless, decent and have some respect for your elders.
This was once a common vision of witches in early literature. In those fable-like lessons, the witch represented wisdom. Her advice or actions in the story leads to growth and/or enlightenment of the main character in some fashion. This isn’t surprising considering women use to be healers of their communities in the early 14th century and beyond. Older women were well-versed in the mysterious ways of the body (amongst other things) and respected for it. Unfortunately, when medicine was picked up as a male profession, women messing with herbs and knowing anything anatomical became grounds for persecution.
This brings us to another common use of witches in literature: the representation of “the other.” Witches were often stand-ins for individuals who didn’t conform to society’s views at the time. People feared “otherness” and it was the reason witches were “bad.” It was also connected to a desire for power, intelligence, and independence. These traits were thought to be unsavory for women and were cause for isolation.
Due to witches’ power, intelligence, and mistreatment throughout history, feminists claim them as inspiring icons. They represent those oppressed and judged.
The Bad Disney Magic
There are several Disney villainesses that fall into “The Witch” archetype. Besides some of these characters literally turning into old crones, they demanded respect where it was due. They have often been shafted in some way and their evil actions are done in retaliation. Also, they are also outcast due to being different and powerful.
The Royal Family did not invite Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty, Silver Age) to Princess Aurora’s christening. In a time when even the lowest servant could attend the Queen’s live birth, it was a big slap in the face. Maleficent is also a fairy, and the only consistent fact about fairies in their lore is that having good manners is important. Add the fact that she was going to walk away before the queen opened her big mouth, and it was all an awful breach of conduct. Last but least, Maleficent is an “other.” She is different from other fairies and feared for her power. They tell her so, and rather rudely, if I may say so.
Ursula (The Little Mermaid, Renaissance Era) was banned from Atlantis. We don’t know what was the cause of her banishment. In earlier concepts of the film, Ursula was King Trident’s sister. She had a share of the sea via her lineage. Either way, Ursula wanted her home back and her rightful place in the kingdom. Once again, society has discredited a witch. Ursula has also had tentacles and was not bubble-headed like Ariel’s sisters. Once again, her power and wit make her an “other.”
Now, I am not trying to redeem these villains. However, when compared to protagonists, things get a bit problematic in early Disney. Ariel and Aurora are passive victims. The main issues that start the plot, King Trident’s banishment and the Royal Parent’s dimness, weren’t about them. The main characters are young, naïve and lacking in power themselves. It feels like the villains are bad because they are too old, wise, and proactive to be good. Early Disney was not a fan of ambitious women.
However, how Disney changed the witch archetype in the past couple of years is interesting. As they attempt to subvert the concept of their princesses, reinvention has also leaked into their villains. For one, the “other” is no longer inherently evil. These films either embrace “otherness” as good or simply view it as neutral. Furthermore, there is a new sense of responsibility on the main characters’ part. While grievances seem removed from earlier MCs, main characters are the direct cause of the mishap and acknowledge their faults. These two changes turn the “witch” from pure evil to misunderstood and, relatedly, grey.
Great Power and Responsibility
In Frozen, Elsa is a queen who ends up becoming feared and isolated due to her uncontrollable power. She is also intelligent and level-headed compared to her younger sister Anna. However, her intelligence or her desire to explore her power doesn’t make her evil by default. It is very clear that the fear of Elsa is a misunderstanding and changing her status of “other” to “accepted” is the prominent part of the plot. Its also clear that this change is Elsa’s responsibility as the main character. Elsa’s fear of her own power is what causes Anna’s frozen heart and the snow storm in the kingdom. It is not until she gets over this fear that things turn for the better.
In Moana, Moana is a princess that travels to return a heart to a goddess named Te Fiti to stop the rampage of a demon named Te Ka. We eventually find out that Te Ka was Te Fiti all along. Not only is our “other” or magical creature not at fault here, she is the victim. Te Ka was an “other.” The main characters thought Te Ka was evil but she was not. On the responsibility end, the whole film is about returning the item and apologizing.
But, what do you guys think? Do you think that witches are important to feminist ideals? Do you think that witches have come full circle in Disney’s history? Did I read way too much into this? Let me know in the comments!
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